Buck “Wail­ing Mail­man” Hill was a renowned jazz sax­o­phon­ist in D.C. — and a let­ter car­rier by day.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Buck Hill, a renowned sax­o­phon­ist and main­stay of the Wash­ing­ton jazz scene for more than 60 years and who was known as the “Wail­ing Mail­man” for his day job with the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, died March 20 at his home in Green­belt, Md. He was 90.

A daugh­ter, Robin Hill, con­firmed the death and said her fa­ther had been treated in re­cent years for heart and prostate ail­ments.

Mr. Hill was a na­tive Wash­ing­to­nian who never left his home town, de­spite hav­ing the tal­ent and of­fers to make a big­ger splash. He be­gan per­form­ing in the 1940s, when the clubs and the­aters along the Dis­trict’s U Street cor­ri­dor were known as the “Black Broad­way.”

Long con­sid­ered Wash­ing­ton’s premier tenor sax­o­phon­ist, Mr. Hill shared the stage with jazz roy­alty such as Dizzy Gille­spie, Miles Davis and Max Roach. When­ever sax­o­phon­ist Sonny Stitt came to Wash­ing­ton, he sought out Mr. Hill for friendly “cut­ting ses­sions,” or tests of a mu­si­cian’s im­pro­vi­sa­tional skill.

Mr. Hill was known for a round, ro­bust tone on his pri­mary in­stru­ment, tenor sax­o­phone. (He oc­ca­sion­ally played the clar­inet and so­prano sax­o­phone.) He also com­posed many tunes, some of which ap­peared on the dozen or so al­bums he recorded from 1978 to 2006. Crit­ics dis­cov­er­ing him for the first time of­ten con­sid­ered him a hid­den star.

“One of the jazz world’s many lo­cal leg­ends,” a re­viewer wrote for Toronto’s Globe and Mail in 1981, “he is a Wash­ing­ton mail­man by day, so it’s tempt­ing to sug­gest that Hill re­ally de­liv­ers the goods, that he puts his stamp on ev­ery­thing he plays, and per­haps even that his ar­rival is over­due.

“What’s bet­ter, it’s all true. He’s a ter­rific player.”

Mr. Hill was re­put­edly of­fered jobs in bands led by Gille­spie and Davis, and he per­formed in Europe with Wash­ing­ton singer Shirley Horn, but he pre­ferred to stay close to home.

“Buck did not like to travel,” Nasar Abadey, a drum­mer who worked with Mr. Hill for more than 30 years, said in an in­ter­view. “He did not like a lot of at­ten­tion. He just wanted to plant his feet and play the mu­sic.”

Mr. Hill of­ten showed up for work at the post of­fice at 4 a.m. to prac­tice his sax­o­phone be­fore sort­ing and de­liv­er­ing the mail. He re­tired in 1998 after more than 40 years with the Postal Ser­vice. He also drove a cab for many years.

On nights and week­ends, Mr. Hill could be found in the city’s lead­ing jazz clubs, from the Show­boat Lounge in the 1950s to Blues Al­ley, Harold’s Rogue & Jar, One Step Down, Pig­foot and — on a re­vived 21st-cen­tury U Street NW — Twins Jazz.

“For some rea­son Buck has al­ways de­cided to stay,” drum­mer Billy Hart, a Wash­ing­ton na­tive, told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 1980. “When I was back in town with Stan Getz a few years ago, I went to see Buck. By this time I as­sumed I would hear the flaws in his play­ing that I hadn’t heard when I was a kid. But I heard him play and he was greater than I even re­mem­bered, and I was play­ing with one of the great­est sax­o­phon­ists. It’s a mys­te­ri­ous thing, but Buck is a true cre­ative ge­nius.”

Roger Wen­dell Hill was born Feb. 13, 1927, in Wash­ing­ton. His fa­ther was a book­binder at the Gov­ern­ment Print­ing Of­fice.

As a child, Mr. Hill ad­mired the space-age comic-strip hero Buck Rogers — “and when your first name is Roger . . . ,” he once told The Post, ex­plain­ing the ori­gin of his nick­name.

He be­gan to play the so­prano sax­o­phone at 13, then took up the clar­inet and the larger tenor sax­o­phone. By the time he was 15, he was play­ing at such U Street clubs as the Bo­hemian Cav­erns and Repub­lic Gar­dens. He grad­u­ated from the Dis­trict’s old Arm­strong High School — the alma mater of pi­anist and jazz band­leader Duke Elling­ton.

After World War II, Mr. Hill played in Army bands be­fore re­turn­ing to Wash­ing­ton.

“I felt if I went to New York, I could play,” he told The Post in 1980. “But I didn’t see how I could do that with a fam­ily. I had chil­dren to sup­port.”

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 68 years, Helen Weaver Hill of Green­belt; two daugh­ters, Deb­o­rah Camp­bell of Alexan­dria, Va., and Robin Hill of Wash­ing­ton; a step­son, Stephen Walker of Lau­rel, Md.; two grand­daugh­ters; and two great-grand­sons.

Mr. Hill’s most re­cent record­ing, “Re­lax,” fea­tur­ing jazz stan­dards and four of his own com­po­si­tions, ap­peared in 2006. He con­tin­ued to per­form in clubs and restau­rants well into his 80s.

“Mu­sic is cap­ti­vat­ing, com­pelling,” he told The Post in 2000. “After a while, you just have to do it, and you can’t stop.”


Buck Hill played the so­prano and tenor sax­o­phones and the clar­inet. He also worked for the Postal Ser­vice for 40-plus years.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.